The global pandemic forcing countries to race to protect themselves could be a major catalyst for more peace in the Middle East. So far, the results have been mixed, and there are still conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria. However, there are questions about whether countries will have the resources to wage war if they have to wage a second war on the virus at home. Already, the armies of Iran, Jordan and Israel have been prepared to deal with aspects of a pandemic or preparing for a pandemic. Armies across the region are likely undertaking similar preparations. This is especially important if countries need to enforce curfews or martial law. Turkey, which has been invading and bombing parts of Syria over the last several years, and which deployed forces to Libya, Qatar and other countries, will have to weigh continued militarism with the need to deal with the pandemic. Some countries may see the pandemic as a reason to increase militant activity to distract their publics from failures at home. However, even Iran, a country likely to use this kind of distraction, has serious problems at home with the virus and with flooding. Iran’s media has had no new propaganda videos about new rockets or drones. In the past, Iran seemed to be producing new rockets, drones and other military hardware every month, and it enjoyed boasting about various military maneuvers. Now that seems off the table. Similarly, it is unclear if fighting in Yemen, Libya and northern Syria, and protests in Kashmir, have ended due to the pandemic. But news about these conflicts appears to have dissipated. It may be that countries will use the pandemic as an excuse to crack down and commit human-rights abuses. However, their ability to do this will be measured against military and security needs at home. For instance, the US has already repositioned forces in Iraq at least in part due to the pandemic. Iranian-backed proxies have continued attacks on bases where US forces are located in Iraq. There are questions about how badly the virus will affect countries in the Middle East. Authoritarian regimes appear to want to downplay the spread of the virus. If the virus is as severe as it appears to be in Italy, it may cause major crises in already weakened states or substates, such as Gaza or Yemen. If it is not as deadly as thought, then it will have less impact. These are questions that will only be answered in the coming months. However, many governments are preparing for serious outbreaks in their countries. As they plan, they will not be able to put as much work into organizing military adventures and will likely husband resources as home. That doesn’t mean joint-training exercises will cease. For instance, the US Marines and Emirati forces held their Native Fury drill despite the virus. Terrorist groups could exploit the weakness of states amid the pandemic. ISIS, for example, still has a presence in Syria and Iraq. Groups such as Al-Shabab, or ISIS in Sinai, may try to commit attacks. Currently, however, the number of attacks appears to have been reduced to a minimal amount. The challenge for states in the region is to balance the need for lockdowns against the economic impact, which could lead to protests and civil strife. That means, for instance, that while the pandemic initially will lead to inward focus for states and likely less conflict, the long-term effects may be more internal problems associated with economic issues, and conflict may actually increase. Many countries in the region, such as Iraq and Lebanon, are suffering major economic difficulties and are on the verge of economic collapse. The significant drop of oil prices also has affected some states. Taken together, the pandemic arrives in the Middle East at a time of several changing trends. ISIS has been largely defeated. In fact, it is one year since its defeat in Baghouz in Syria. But Iran is rising. The Syrian conflict, as well as fighting in Libya and Yemen, appear to be winding down. These states remain divided. Divided states are vulnerable to epidemics, as they lack central governments to provide tests and medical support. The millions of refugees and internally displaced persons in the region also lack medical care. These are some of the challenges that could result in more peace or conflict, depending on decisions of the major states and substate actors in the Middle East.
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